Monday 12 August 2013

Race and Gender Bias in Doctor Who

A little over a week ago, when Peter Capaldi was announced as the twelfth Doctor, there was a lot of celebration and cheering across Doctor Who fandom. And for good reason. Capaldi is a brilliant actor, and I have no doubt he will make an amazing Doctor. However, amidst all the praise and adulation has been some criticism and negativity. There have even been some rather baseless and silly criticisms. This isn’t really anything new. Doctor Who fans can be hard to please sometimes, and there are typically vehement complaints with every new Doctor, from Christopher Eccleston’s leather jacket not being Doctor-ish enough to Matt Smith being too young—an interesting one given that some people are now calling Peter Capaldi too old. However, there is one criticism of Capaldi’s casting that is gaining a fair amount of voice and it’s actually quite valid.

To be fair, it’s not actually a criticism of Peter Capaldi himself, and I’ll reiterate that I think he’s a great choice for the role. I’m excited to see his portrayal. Indeed, I can’t wait! The criticism is directed more towards the process itself and the people who make the decision, people like Steven Moffat and the other senior members of the production crew. The simple fact of the matter is that Peter Capaldi is the twelfth white man in a row to play the role, thirteenth if you count John Hurt. There has never been a person of colour in the role or even—gasp!—a woman. And lots of people have noticed. (Just as a bit of shameless self-promotion, this Jezebel article on the topic even mentions me by name!)

I can almost hear the groans from some people now. Why does it matter whether Capaldi is white or not? All that matters is whether he’s a good Doctor. The role should go to the best choice, regardless of the colour of the actor’s skin. And yes, this is ideally true. And it really doesn’t matter that Capaldi himself is white. However, what does matter is that all the Doctors have been white. If casting were truly colour blind, if everyone truly had an equal chance and the part always went to the person best suited for the role, wouldn’t we logically expect a bit more of a racially diverse group playing the Doctor? It’s simple statistics. This becomes more and more true the more Doctors there are, as the sample size becomes larger. The U.K. is a pretty racially diverse place and there are lots of non-white actors there, but none of them ever land the role of the Doctor*. Now, to be fair, the political climate back in the 60’s and 70’s pretty much ensured that the early Doctors would all be white, but this is the 21st century now and all four 21st century Doctors (five including Hurt) have been white. It really is overdue time to get rid of these ingrained biases that still permeate our lives and media, as this is a problem that extends well beyond Doctor Who.

It’s important to note that these are generally unconscious biases. I don’t for one minute believe that Steven Moffat sat down with his associates and said, “Matt Smith is leaving so we need to pick a new Doctor, but whoever we pick, he must absolutely be white.” That would be silly. However, the choice did nevertheless end up going to a white man, and there wasn’t even an actual audition process this time. Moffat has said he had Capaldi in mind right from the start. Capaldi did do an audition, but he was the only one. That audition was simply so that Moffat could make a tape of the performance and pass it on to others involved in the decision-making process so that they could say yes or no. They all said yes. It’s really not that unusual for actors in television and movies to be chosen without a full audition process—sometimes parts are even written with a specific actor in mind—but it is a fairly good demonstration of bias in motion because when Steven Moffat sat down to think about what the new Doctor might be like, he probably did what so many other white male fans would do (and I include myself in that statement): He imagined a white Doctor. He then thought of an actor who would fit that imaginary Doctor. Because white is the default in his mind, he naturally gravitated immediately to a white actor. In this particular case, no non-white actor even had a chance.

As for the possibility of a woman in the role, Moffat himself said,
When it's the right decision, maybe we'll do it. It didn't feel right to me, right now. I didn't feel enough people wanted it. Oddly enough most people who said they were dead against it—and I know I'll get into trouble for saying this—were women. [They were] saying, “No, no, don't make him a woman!”
I like that Helen Mirren has been saying the next Doctor should be a woman. I would like to go on record and say that the Queen should be played by a man.
These are fairly typical defensive responses to being called out on bias, by placing the responsibility on someone else (in this case, women fans) or spinning it in such a way as to try to make it sound absurd. Personally, I know of a lot of fans, both men and women, who would very much like to see a female Doctor, although admittedly, some of them (myself included) don’t want to see Moffat writing for her—see here and here and numerous of my Doctor Who reviews for more details about why I feel this way.

What makes race or gender bias so insidious is that it’s so often not done out of any malice. People honestly believe they are making decisions for the best of reasons and that it’s pure coincidence that it’s a white man who gets the job. The biases are unconscious and that leads people to deny they even exist. After all, acknowledging their existence means having to face up to the racism and sexism that still permeate modern society. And so, we end up with one white man after another playing the Doctor. They are all great choices. They all put their own spin on the Doctor and they are all entertaining to watch. But the pattern nevertheless is there. Race and gender biases do exist. There have been countless studies demonstrating this fact. Here are just two of them: “Scientists not immune from gender bias, Yale study shows” and “Blind auditions key to hiring musicians”.

So, even acknowledging that these biases exist, what can Doctor Who do about it? For a start, it can do something different and new. Doctor Who has always been about change. Right from the day William Hartnell’s Doctor regenerated into Patrick Troughton’s, the show has constantly reinvented itself. It has taken risks that most other shows would never dream of. Casting Peter Capaldi does showcase some of these things. It’s been a long time since there was an older actor in the role. Indeed, since 2005, the role has been going to progressively younger actors. Christopher Eccleston was 40 when he got the role. David Tennant was 34. Matt Smith was only 26. Peter Capaldi makes a great change from this as it’s a pattern that really needed breaking—indeed, enough of one that there are people only familiar with the new series who, until Capaldi’s casting, honestly believed regeneration was supposed to make the Doctor younger. But in so many other ways, Peter Capaldi is still a safe choice. He still fits the mould that fifty years’ worth of Doctors have fit. As Two-Minute Time Lord puts it, “Looking like an authoritative member of the default British power structure has been the Doctor's real psychic paper for 50 years now.” It’s time for the show to give us a Doctor we haven’t seen before, time to give a significant portion of the audience someone who looks a little more like them. It’s time for a person of colour or a woman in the role.

Now, some people will say that you can’t hire an actor just because that actor isn’t white or just because she’s a woman. That would be just as bad as hiring an actor just because he’s white or just because he’s a man. And I’m not suggesting it should be done just because of that. Obviously, the person in question needs to be good in the role too, but there are actors of colour out there more than capable of playing the role (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Patterson Joseph, and Idris Elba have all been mooted for the role at one point or another), and the people doing the casting (like Steven Moffat) need to be open to the possibility—truly open. The unfortunate fact is that the first woman or person of colour to play the Doctor will face accusations of having been chosen only as “stunt casting” or as an attempt to be “politically correct”. It doesn’t matter what the real reasons for choosing that person will be; there will be a few vocal people who will believe those accusations whole-heartedly. But casting that person will challenge the status quo and once there has been one, it will be much easier for there to be a second and a third.

I suppose one could argue that I am, myself, exhibiting a bias in suggesting this, and yes, I suppose I am. However, it’s a bias that challenges existing biases. We can probably never totally eliminate all biases in our lives, but the only way to minimize bias is to challenge it with alternatives.

Of course, I’m not in any way suggesting Peter Capaldi should be dropped and a woman or person of colour cast in his place. Peter Capaldi has been chosen. He is the twelfth Doctor and he will remain so for however long he chooses to. Once he débuts next year, we can judge him based on his performance, which as I’ve already state, I’m confident will be brilliant. However, when Capaldi does decide to move on, perhaps whoever does the casting then will consider some truly new options.

* Yes, I am aware that Neil Gaiman has stated that a black actor was previously offered the part of the Doctor but turned it down. Because of the timing of this statement, many people have erroneously concluded that it was for the role of the twelfth Doctor. Gaiman has since clarified that it was for an earlier Doctor. This does show that people of colour are not completely out of the mix when it comes to the role, but it doesn’t change the fact that the second choice after this unnamed actor was another white guy.


  1. I would argue against the casting of a female Doctor very strenuously.

    Modern Western society recognizes the psychological pain experienced by those who feel they have been born in a body whose assigned sex doesn't match their gender identity and medically supports their efforts to correct the issue. How can the same people who affirm transgender individuals turn around and claim that it doesn't matter whether an established character has a male or female body?

    The bloggers at Jezebel are approaching this from an employment-rights angle: Why should female actors be passed over for the lead role? To mix metaphors, they're metagaming instead of using in-character reasoning. There is a HUGE difference between saying that the US ought to have a female president and saying that Barack Obama should have a sex change so that the US has a female president. In that sense, I guess I agree with Steven Moffat's flip remark about the Queen -- except that I don't think it's flip at all.

    If Jezebel wants a television show with a female lead dealing with a powerful, intelligent female Time Lord, then they should lobby for a spin-off ("Romana's Adventures in E-Space," for example). The Doctor, as a character, has always identified as a man. To regenerate him into a female body would be a violent imposition, to my mind.

    Plus, as much as I love "Coupling," if done under Moffatt, a female Doctor would undoubtedly be portrayed on the slapstick level of imaginary post-sex-change Jeff in "9½ Months." The "I'm aroused by my own breasts" jokes were painful enough to watch for 30 minutes; I absolutely could not take it spread out over a season or more.


    1. I completely agree that a female Doctor should not happen under Steven Moffat. It absolutely would turn into one long joke--think Joanna Lumley's Doctor in "The Curse of Fatal Death" written by none other than Moffat. Yes, that was a comedy parody, but I would fully expect those same jokes to be trotted out repeatedly in Moffat's "serious" Who too.

      However, I disagree that the call for a female Doctor (from Jezebel or other sources) is entirely an employment-rights thing. Rather, it's one of representation and inclusion. It's not just representation for women, but also representation for transgender people. True, the Doctor changing from a man to a woman through regeneration isn't exactly the same thing that transgender people go through (since people don't actually regenerate), but there is a similarity. Admittedly, I can't speak personally for the transgender community and how they would react to a female Doctor, but some of the most passionate pleas for a female Doctor that I've read have come from transgender individuals (here is just one that comes up in a quick Google search: A female Doctor offers transgender people representation in a medium that very rarely even acknowledges they exist. Naturally, it would have to be handled with a certain level of sensitivity (something I don't think Moffat is capable of).

      As for Moffat's comment on the Queen, my problem with it is that the Queen and the Doctor are very different people. For a start, one of them is real. I would never expect a program about the life of the queen to cast a man in the role. Nor would I expect a program about the life of Barack Obama to cast anyone other than a black man (preferably someone with some physical resemblance to Obama). However, the Doctor is a fictional alien, capable of completely rearranging his body. If regeneration can change the genes responsible for his height, eye colour, hair colour, etc., why not his sex or skin colour?

      All that said, I would be totally behind your suggestion for a Romana spin-off. Romana is one of my all-time favourite companions (rivalled only by Donna and Bernice Summerfield from the novels). I would absolutely love a series about her!

      Thanks for the comment!

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